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Scattered Shots: Skill vs. gear

Brian Wood

Welcome to Scattered Shots, written by Frostheim of Warcraft Hunters Union and the Hunting Party Podcast. Each week Frostheim uses logic and science mixed with a few mugs of Dwarven Stout to look deep into the Hunter class.

The skill vs. gear debate comes up fairly often, whether it's people cursing Gearscore or cursing Recount or cursing their teammates from the Dungeon Finder. And it's not even a debate: across the board everyone agrees that skill is greater than gear. Good DPS comes from skill and that skill far outweighs the impact of gear. Gevlon's guild brought this into the spotlight in October of last year when they did Ulduar in all blues -- including Yogg-Saron.

But here's the thing: every time someone is out-DPSed by the same class the response seems always to be, "Yeah, but he has better gear." I've never seen anyone say, "Yeah, he must be a better player than me." I mean, not once, not ever.

The reason is that in our heart of hearts, we all assume that we're skilled players.

So today we're going to take a look at exactly how much our gear contributes to our DPS, and compare that to raid buffs. We're going to define what we mean by skill, as opposed to mere competence. Join me after the cut for a mix of hard numbers and philosophy and arm yourself for the next skill vs. gear debate that pops up.

The Impact of Gear

Let me ask you this: imagine you have all blue gear -- good blues, certainly, but all blues. How much more damage could you do if you then replaced all those blues with ilvl 264 gear? We're talking four tiers of gear here, skipping Naxx, Ulduar, and TotC, and going straight to ICC 25 gear. We're going from the worst level 80 (and some not even 80) gear to the best currently available. How much better do you think your DPS gets with each full tier of upgrades?

The easiest way to answer this question fairly is go use the hunter spreadsheet*. As we know, the spreadsheets aren't very good at modeling real boss fights (given the errors in averaging, movement, and multiple targets), but they're pretty good at comparing gear and stats.

Again, remember that in general you'll never actually get the amount of DPS that a spreadsheet predicts -- it's modeling a perfect world. We're interested in the qualitative analysis -- when a spreadsheet says that X gear will get you a 20% increase, you'll usually see that 20% increase above wherever you actually are.

Raid buffed DPS by item level:

Item Level DPS
Blues ilvl < 201 6,013
ilvl 213 6,813
ilvl 226 8,334
ilvl 245 9,268
ilvl 264 10,869

So here we see that going from the worst level 80 gear to the best level 80 gear is not quite going to double your DPS, or give you around a 100% DPS increase. Each full tier of gear is netting us around a 12% - 20% upgrade to our DPS. This means that if you're doing 6k DPS in mostly ilvl 245 gear, you can expect to do around 7k DPS in mostly ilvl 264 gear.

This percentage upgrade of DPS is a very important concept! The better your skill is, the more DPS you'll get out of your gear. Two hunters will not necessarily see the same DPS increase from getting Deathbringer's Will. The better player will get more DPS out of the same gear -- substantially more!

Of course every boss fight is different and you'll see different DPS from fight to fight. And of course you'll see radically different DPS depending on what raid buffs you have.

The Impact of Raid Buffs

I think one of the worst things about the obsession with gear is not just the glossing over of skill but the glossing over of the impact on raid buffs. Raid buffs are huge. You absolutely want to maximize your 25 man raid team to get every single raid buff available. This can at times even be worth taking less-skilled players to gain crucial buffs.

Just how important are they? Let's look at the same spreadsheet data that we did before and see what happens with and without raid buffs.

Item Level Unbuffed
Raid Buffed
ilvl <201 2,946 6,013
ilvl 213 3,493 6,813
ilvl 226 4,348 8,334
ilvl 245 5,015 9,268
ilvl 264 5,638 10,869

As you can see, the effect of all the raid buffs and debuffs is massive. Massive. In the best gear, raid buffs are contributing about as much to our DPS as increasing our gear from blues to ilv 264. Think about that for a moment. Your raid buffs are contributing as much damage as increasing from the worst level 80 gear to the best level 80 gear in the game. As much as four full tiers of gear. Raid buffs indeed are more important than gear as well.

As we can see, our raid buffs also scale with our gear. And just like gear, the better your skill, the more DPS you'll actually get our of your raid buffs.

The Competence Baseline

A lot of WoW conversation these days has no middle ground -- everything is extremes. You're either casual or hardcore, leet or a noob, and a skilled hunter or a useless huntard. I'm a big believer in baselines. Without an average point, there can be no great or horrible. Unfortunately I think many people confuse the baseline of hunter competence with being skilled.

The baseline for hunters means that you have a solid talent build, good glyphs, the right epic gems, best enchants, a good pet that is specced well, and you know your shot rotation priority. This hunter probably has some basic macros, certainly macroing stuff like Kill Command or Silencing Shot into other shots, and understands the mechanics of the game.

In other words this hunter has spent a couple hours on the web, found a reliable source of hunter information, has read and understood it, and then copied all that information onto his character. With some practice he's probably pulling around 5-6k DPS in the 25 man ICC Lower Spire bosses with ilv 245 gear, and 4-5k DPS on Saurfang while kiting Blood Beasts. Upgrading gear a full tier will net him around 900 DPS.

All of this does not make a skilled hunter -- just a competent one.

Hunter Skills

Ignore everything that the spreadsheets say about what your DPS should be. They exist for comparative analysis, not to give you absolute numbers. If you want to know what your DPS should be, go to Patchwerk -- he'll be the weekly eventually. This is a fight where you can stand still and stare at your cooldowns. This is the amount of DPS that you can do, with the raid buffs your group provides, in a single target boss fight. This is your goal in every other fight.

Certainly the mechanics of most fights mean you can't hit that ideal. Target switching, DPS lockouts, and badly timed boss abilities will all hamper your DPS. But overall you can usually get darned close to that Patchwerk goal -- certainly within 10-20%

Here are the key skills that separate a truly skilled hunter from a competent one (we're assuming here that both hunters understand threat management, moving out of void zones, etc.):
  • Jump-Shot: The quintessential hunter skill that lets us shoot any instant shot on the move, regardless of our orientation. Movement should never interrupt the timing of your shots -- every 1.5 seconds another should be going off. Strafing is an alternative to the jump-shot that isn't quite as versatile. Jump-shot can do everything strafting can, but strafing can't do everything jump-shot can (shooting a target directly behind you).
  • Shoot & Scoot: This is the key movement trick of all hunters since vanilla. The concept is simply that when you're moving, you stop for a fraction of a second any time your auto-shot is available so that you don't lose auto-shots while moving. Some people use addons to track their auto-shot timer. For me the sweet sound of my gun firing is my internal metronome, my groove of death, and I don't need an addon to know when to stutter my movement to let it those shots slip out.
  • Disengage: This is a woefully under-utilized hunter ability in raids. Disengage lets you cover a good distance fast, and you can shoot while disengaging. With a bit of practice, you can Disengage in the direction you're running with a jump-disengage. It's similar to the jump-shot, but requires more precision in facing and you have to reapply your movement command or you'll stop when you land.
  • Cooldown Stacking: Hunters can gain a multiplicitive advantage to their cooldown abilities by using several at the same time. This is particularly strong for MM hunters who get four Rapid Fires per boss fight in most cases, and stacking those with trinket procs and Furious Howl gives a significant DPS gain.
  • Understanding Boss Fights: Easily one of the most important aspects, right up there with movement management. There is only one Patchwerk fight, where we can just sit and do our optimal rotation. Everything else requires modifying that rotation in the most intelligent way possible. Most boss fight elements are predictable and can be planned for, and understanding and thinking about how to maximize your abilities on a boss fight is key to maximizing your DPS. This includes knowing the best time to burn cooldowns, knowing what abilities not to waste on adds, having shots ready on stand-by for adds, and maximizing multi-target DPS, including using Chimera Shot to maintain Serpent Sting on two targets. There are probably as many tricks as there are bosses.
These are what we mean by hunter skills. Our skilled hunter is intimately familiar with the hunter class and has practiced skills like jump-shot, shoot & scoot, and Disengage as well as truly studied the boss fights with an eye to DPS optimization. She is probably pulling 7k+ on ICC Lower Spire bosses in the same gear as our competent hunter. Upgrading her gear a full tier is netting her over 1,200 DPS, possibly well over. She is getting more DPS from each piece of gear than the competent hunter.

Skill vs. Gear

At the end of the day, gear can certainly be said to be a measure of your DPS potential, and skill your ability to reach that potential. Perhaps some of the problem is that in a world of Salieres most people don't have a good understanding of what the true potential of gear levels is. In a world of mediocrity we associate poor performance with a failing of gear, rather than a failing of ability. We're used to seeing someone in ilvl 245 gear pulling 4k DPS, and then think that ilvl 245 gear is needed to hit 4k DPS.

The truth is that you can do Ulduar in all blues. You can do 6-7k boss DPS in your ilvl 232 gear. You can beat Festergut's DPS check in Ulduar gear. Skill is more important than gear by far. Raid buffs are more important than gear. You concentration, your state of mind, and the inquisitiveness of your cat are more important than a few big upgrades.

Gear will always help your DPS, but the amount that it helps is directly proportional to your skill.

* Spreadsheet modeling methodology: I used an agility-based MM build and rotation and built pretty good gear sets for each level. I used sets appropriate to the tier in logical slots, a wolf pet, best gems/enchants/ammo (since those are available to everyone). I modeled a 5-minute boss fight with 40 seconds below 20%. I didn't spend hours optimizing the gear at each level, and I'm sure you could squeeze out more DPS at every level by really digging deep into gear; however, for qualitative purposes this should be pretty accurate with a relatively small margin of error.

You want to be a Hunter, eh? Well then you came to the right place. You start with science, then you add some Dwarven Stout, and round it off some elf bashing. The end result is massive dps. Scattered Shots is the column dedicated to helping you learn everything it takes to be a Hunter. Each week Scattered Shots will cover topics to help you Fix Your DPS, Choosing the Right Spec, Gear Selection, Macros and Pet Selection, Pet Specs and Management.

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